Nintendo NES Classic Edition review: The NES Classic is back, but Switch owners should think twice
It's been a year and a half since the NES Classic first arrived, and over a year since one landed in my house. My son was in love with the little thing. He begged his friends to play its games.
I asked him again whether he still likes the NES Classic, which mostly sits unplayed in the living room. Now that it's available to buy again, in unclear quantities, is it worth getting?
"I like iPad games now," he says. He's referring to Roblox, not Fortnite.
My son is almost 10. Kids get bored with games. Grownups do, too. I don't play the NES Classic much, but I'm still really glad I bought it.
It's like that Blu-ray box set of Twin Peaks I keep on my bookshelf, also mostly untouched. Or the nice art books I collect. It's a library thing, a Nintendo museum. As a $60 self-contained package of 30 of the best Nintendo 8-bit games, it remains a perfect distillation of childhood gaming nostalgia.
But hang on: NES games are coming to the Nintendo Switch in September, if you sign up for its upcoming subscription online game service, which costs only $20 per year. In addition to offering online multiplayer support for games like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the Switch online service will offer access to downloadable classic NES titles at no extra charge.
It will start with 20 NES games with upgraded online play modes, and promises of more to come. Eight of the ten already revealed mostly overlap with the NES Classic: Soccer, Donkey Kong, Tennis, Mario Bros., Balloon Fight, Super Mario Bros., Ice Climber, The Legend of Zelda, Dr. Mario and Super Mario Bros. 3. And odds are that at least some of the future titles may be duplicates, too.
Those games will be like the free games you get on PlayStation Plus: They're gone as soon as you unsubscribe. You'll never "own" them. (The Switch does, however, have a good library of retro games already available, sold a la carte or in more expensive compilations.) But for Switch owners, it means the NES Classic isn't the only place to play these old-school games.
If you have a Switch, you might want to hang out a bit. But if you're really a die-hard NES fan, at $60, I doubt you'll regret getting a self-contained box set of NES games. It's still fun, and it's still as good as it was in 2016.
That said, I personally think that the SNES Classic, the 16-bit plug-and-play box that Nintendo is also restocking, is a better choice. There are no announced SNES games coming via the Switch online service, and the SNES Classic's best games -- including Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past, and Super Metroid -- are generally better than those on the NES Classic.
The original review of the NES Classic is below.
"Dad, I want to save my allowance to get this."
My son played on the throwback controller easily: to him, it's like a Wii remote. And he already knows how to play Super Mario Bros. 3: he remembers it from Super Mario Maker, where he's created endless levels.
Nintendo's prepared him well.
If you love retro games, you're probably an obsessive over the culture. A collector, maybe. So the NES Classic Edition, a miniature replica of the system released in the US in 1985, that's also a plug-and-play box with 30 classic NES games installed, probably sounds like a geek dream come true.
It's available now, but it's already very difficult to find; it could well be the hard-to-get gift for the 2016 holiday season.
But it's not just Nintendo's move into a landscape well-traveled by lots of other all-in-one retro game boxes over the years. Finally, these classic games have been freed from their Nintendo console prison. Into, well, a small, very affordable box.
Nintendo's classic archive of games, many of which are flat-out legendary, have always existed behind a protective wall of proprietary hardware. Buy a Nintendo 3DS, or a Wii, or a Wii U, and download Virtual Console mini games. What you buy for one system doesn't necessarily carry over to another. This is how I've bought Super Mario Bros. 3 about three times.
The stand-alone NES Classic Edition bundles 30 NES games in one self-contained package for $60, £50 or AU$100. As my son noticed right off the bat, it's 30 games for the price of one Wii U game, just about.
Is that a good deal? Well, yes, considering that Nintendo normally sells most of these games for $5 a pop via its Virtual Console service.
The included 30 games are all pretty good, too, and they all play perfectly, even down to the authentic sprite-flicker and slowdown. Super Mario Bros. 1-3 are here, and Zelda 1 and 2. Metroid, Kirby's Adventure, Castlevania, Super C. The whole list, in case you're curious:
- Balloon Fight
- Bubble Bobble
- Castlevania II: Simon's Quest
- Donkey Kong
- Donkey Kong Jr.
- Double Dragon II: The Revenge
- Dr. Mario
- Final Fantasy
- Ghosts'n Goblins
- Ice Climber
- Kid Icarus
- Kirby's Adventure
- Mario Bros.
- Mega Man 2
- Ninja Gaiden
- Punch-Out! Featuring Mr. Dream
- Super C
- Super Mario Bros.
- Super Mario Bros. 2
- Super Mario Bros. 3
- Tecmo Bowl
- The Legend of Zelda
- Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
The design: Total collector's item
The NES Classic Edition looks exactly like a shrunken-down NES. But most of that design is strictly cosmetic: the front cartridge door doesn't open and the ports are all different. On the back there's HDMI to connect to modern TVs, plus its power adapter uses Micro-USB, meaning no proprietary adapter cables.
The box is light, about the size of an Apple TV, and slid easily into a small bag. It's Nintendo's version of those plug-and-play retro game collection boxes (Sega, Atari, Namco and others) that have been sold at toy stores for years.
Only one controller, and it's not wireless
There's also only one controller in the box, even though the system supports two-player games (16 games in the collection have two-player modes). It has its own special connector port. You can connect a second controller, but it's not included. That's $10, £8 or AU$20 extra.
The included controller, while identical to a classic NES controller, isn't wireless. That's particularly annoying because it has an extremely short cable. You can buy an extension cord separately via Nintendo, but you'll probably have to pull the mini NES out from your TV and play while seated on the floor. The controller's special connector port is identical to the port on the bottom of a Wii remote, and can work with Wii remote Virtual Console NES games as a nice bonus.
Extra perks and quirks
The NES starts up with a power button, and can also reset. But to switch games on the NES, you need to press that reset button -- there's no controller button that brings you back to the home menu. It's odd, and annoying to keep going over to the box.
All the games can be found on a smartly designed built-in menu, and every game has four save slots -- something you could never do on most original NES games. Some, like Zelda, did it, but now you can literally save anywhere and pick up again later. But, to save, you need to reach over and press that reset button on the box again, which feels counterintuitive. You can't save from pressing the Start or Select buttons on the controller. But at least games will also auto-save if the system sits untouched for an hour, after which the mini NES shuts off to conserve power.
The games can play in three video modes, too: pixel perfect, which blocks everything off into a square on your TV; a wider 4:3 mode that stretches the game out a bit; and a clever CRT effect mode that fuzzes the pixels and makes everything look like it's playing on a basement TV from the 80s (my favorite for arcade games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man).
If you've ever downloaded a Virtual Console NES game on the Wii, Wii U, Nintendo DS or 3DS, the way the games load and feel is similar here. The games are great. But, they're also old...and maybe older than you remember. Some of Nintendo's best retro games were actually on the Super NES, none of which are here. Also, some NES classics are still missing (Blades of Steel, anyone? Battletoads?). But if you loved Nintendo's 8-bit days, this is still the best $60 homage ever made.
Would kids like it? My kid does. Sure, for $80, £75 or AU$150, a Nintendo 2DS is still a better gateway to all sorts of games on the go, including Nintendo DS classics and NES games. But this, per game, is the cheapest ticket to Nintendo nostalgia around -- and it lives up to expectations. Welcome to your nerd-gamer stocking-stuffer for 2016.
Wanna bet Nintendo makes an SNES one of these next year?
Editors' note: This story was originally published on Nov. 4, 2017. Minor updates have been added.